For many casual observers and drinkers, hard seltzer seemed to come out of nowhere last summer. Sweeping across the country like a fizzy, buzz-making tidal wave, hot girl summer suddenly had an official beverage sponsor: White Claw.
But for those in the industry or closely observing it, the rise of hard seltzer wasn’t mere happenstance—consumers were primed for the product. The fact that hard seltzer contains less alcohol than spirits and fewer calories than beer, while by widespread consensus also tasting pretty good, has kept people coming back.
Now, brands both big and small are growing the category. New ad campaigns, product innovations and creative merchandise, like face masks that come with a straw-sized slot for the Covid-19 era, are generating attention.
Retail sales have remained robust throughout the pandemic, which has ultimately hurt the alcohol industry. From the beginning of March to mid-July, off-premise sales of hard seltzer hit $1.66 billion, up 253% from the same time last year and more than the category produced in all of 2019, according to Nielsen. While retail beer sales during this period were much larger ($14.87 billion), the year-over-year increase was much smaller (12%).
Hovering around 10% of total beer sales, hard seltzer looks to be more than just a flash in the pan, à la the wine coolers of the 1980s or ’90s-era Zima. As more alcohol brands throw their hats into the hard seltzer ring each month, experts and brands alike are expecting the category to grow for at least a few more years, and to stick around for a lot longer than that.
The category’s upward trajectory has attracted plenty of competition. According to Nielsen, 10 hard seltzer brands existed at the beginning of 2018. A year later, it was 26. At present, more than 65 different labels are available. Approximately half are under a completely new name (e.g., Vizzy Hard Seltzer from Molson Coors), while the other half leverage a preexisting beer brand name (e.g., Corona Hard Seltzer from Constellation Brands).
During a July 1 earnings call with analysts, William Newlands, CEO of Constellation Brands, which makes both Corona the beer and Corona the hard seltzer, said the recent debut of Corona Hard Seltzer was a success in part because of its name.
“We believe the refreshment attributes of seltzer combined with the halo effect of the Corona brand … provides an opportunity to build one of the strongest hard seltzer brands in our industry,” he said, noting that Corona Hard Seltzer quickly became the fourth-best-selling brand in the category.
The health and wellness trend
Over the past five to 10 years, consumer preferences have trended toward lower-carb, lower-calorie options in food and drink, and that’s increasingly creeping into happy hour and weekend drinking. While light beers went part of the way toward meeting that need, a push for more transparency in ingredients and the paleo diet craze meant consumers were already reaching for exactly what hard seltzers would offer—often without knowing it.
Wine and spirits consultant Arthur Shapiro said hard seltzer is fun and convenient but that the real driver is the product’s perceived healthiness. “I think that’s all part of a growing concern about additives, flavoring and things of that sort,” he said.
Aside from certain light beers or niche alcohol products like Skinnygirl, most mainstream wines, beers and spirits don’t provide nutritional information on their labels. And for consumers motivated by the calorie, carb or sugar content, that can be a deciding factor at the liquor store, according to SipSource industry analyst Dale Stratton.
“If I’m a consumer and I’m standing in front of this shelf, and here’s White Claw that is very, very explicitly telling me how many calories I’m going to consume,” said Stratton, “and here are other products out there that have no information—if that’s an important attribute to me, I’m choosing the one that tells me what’s there.”
Boathouse Beverage launched the first-known hard seltzer, called simply SpikedSeltzer, in 2013. Anheuser-Busch acquired the company in 2016—the same year White Claw, Truly and Smirnoff Spiked Sparkling Seltzer hit the market. But it took a couple years for the category’s growth to seriously take off.
It all came to a head last summer when White Claw was extensively memed, contributing to a season of exponential growth for the category. The ironic internet treatment also allowed the drink to gain traction across gender lines as millennial men jumped on a bandwagon that had been previously thought of as reserved for more feminine drinkers.
Chatter around the brand hasn’t dropped off, either. Between May and July 22, year-over-year White Claw mentions on Twitter increased 46%, according to social media analytics firm Sprout Social. (Amid the recent departure of Mark Anthony Brands’ svp of marketing, Sanjiv Gajiwala, the label declined to comment for this story.)
But where does hard seltzer go from here? While it was initially perceived as a social summer drink, the category has continued to thrive amid the novel coronavirus pandemic and regardless of the season, continually exceeding sales predictions.